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Language and Culture (13-17)

Racism report’s idea for naming river ‘Wolastoq Saint John’ is tone deaf, chief says

December 21, 2022

Wolastoqey leaders have long called for the New Brunswick river to be renamed Wolastoq

Wolastoqey say the river was named the St. John by Samuel de Champlain without their consultation.(Submitted by Nancy Hall)

CBC News: The chief of Sitansisk, or St. Mary’s First Nation, says Manju Varma’s recommendation to rename a historic New Brunswick river the Wolastoq Saint John is “tone deaf.”   

Varma, New Brunswick’s commissioner of systemic racism, released her report Friday, and the name change was one of 86 recommendations. 

Wolastoqey leaders have long called for the river to be renamed Wolastoq as a move of reconciliation and to help with the revival of their language. They say the explorer Samuel de Champlain named the river St. John without consulting the Indigenous people who lived along it.

“The river is our identity, it represents who we are, it represents our language, it represents our cultural values, it represents our traditional foods,” Sitansisk Chief Allan Polchies said Tuesday.

The river, which begins in northern Maine and flows into the Bay of Fundy, has deep ties to the Wolastoqey homeland.

Polchies said his ancestors used to travel up and down the river to visit relatives, hunt and sell baskets.

Allan Polchies, chief of Sitansisk or St. Mary’s First Nation, said there should have been more consultation with Indigenous leaders before the name change was recommended.  (CBC)

Varma said a conversation with Elder Imelda Perley  led to the recommendation in the systemic racism report. Perley produced a film, I Am Wolastoq, which showcased the desire of Wolastoqey elders to change the river’s name back to Wolastoq.

“She talked about the place of the river, the connection of the river to the culture and to their very essence of being,” Varma said of Perley. 

While the Geographical Names Board of Canada would oversee the name of the river, Varma said she discovered that the province could have a “great say in the naming.” 

When asked why she didn’t just recommend using the traditional name, Wolastoq, on its own, Varma said, “I didn’t give it that much thought, I’ll be quite honest about that.” 

She said naming the river Wolastoq Saint John River would provide clarity for people.

“So when you’re looking and you see Wolastoq Saint John River, ‘OK, so that’s where the St. John River is’,” she said. “It wasn’t anything deeper than that.”

A woman smiles while looking at the camera with a blurry background.
Manju Varma, New Brunswick’s systemic racism commissioner, said she thought the name Wolastoq Saint John River would provide clarity for people. (Shane Magee/CBC)

But Varma said her goal with this recommendation was to send a message to the province that it should work with Indigenous leaders and support the name change they would like to see. 

Polchies said he wishes the province would better consult with Indigenous leaders and do more effective research before making recommendations on their behalf.

Mark Taylor, a spokesperson for the province’s Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, said in a statement “Government is taking time to consider that recommendation and the other 85 in the report.”

‘This is really unfortunate,’ says former adviser

Robert Tay-Burroughs, who resigned from his position as Varma’s senior adviser in June, said the distinction between renaming the river Wolastoq Saint John River and simply Wolastoq is important. 

“From what I understand, the whole point of this was to get rid of the colonial name that was imposed upon the river and, through that, upon the people,” said Tay-Burroughs, whose PhD research at the University of New Brunswick focuses on colonialism. 

Robert Tay-Burroughs, former senior adviser to Manju Varma, called the recommendation strange and unfortunate. (Submitted by Robert Tay-Burroughs)

He said he found the commissioner’s recommendation “strange,” and it means one of two things. 

It could be he commissioner isn’t able to fully commit to what Wolastoqey leaders and community members have called for, he said. “This is problematic and might leave a sour taste for Wabanaki peoples if the report isn’t strong in its convictions for something so symbolic.”

Or, he said, the commissioner doesn’t fully understand what Wolastoqey are fighting for, “in terms of their linguistic revival, their sovereignty, their cultural identity.”  

“Neither are good,” he said. “This is really unfortunate.” 

Tay-Burroughs said it’s important for the commissioner to understand the context of the issue and discussions being had by Wolastoqey leaders and community members, before she makes recommendations.